There’s a new study out in Child Development (a leading peer-reviewed journal in the field), and covered in the Washington Post, that goes straight to Montessori’s complicated interaction with the world of academically recognized empirical science.
The study challenges the commonly held view that children under six do not understand place value in multi-digit numbers. Instead, the authors found some understanding, most likely gleaned from environmental experiences hearing and seeing such numbers, in children as young as three. Children were able to identify and compare spoken numbers, choosing among written representations, images of base-10 blocks, and clusters of dots, with an accuracy significantly greater than chance.
This is great news for Montessori teachers, since we have been presenting place value and operations with four-digit numbers to four and five year old children for more than one hundred years. There’s that smug little affirmation we get when solid research bears out something we already do.
But that’s not the only result the study found.
The authors went on to give children instruction in identifying and comparing multi-digit numbers using two different methods: decimal block manipulatives (similar to Montessori golden bead material) and abstract symbols (single digits on cards). Surprisingly (to Montessorians), the manipulatives instruction was much less effective at improving numeral recognition. In fact, children who were instructed with decimal blocks scored lower on testing after instruction.
What are we to make of this? As Montessorians, we’re a little prone to smugly identifying published research with confirms our preconceived notions and our century of practice. We sometimes speak of “the science catching up with Montessori.” But we’re not always so quick to point out research that points the other way. There’s no denying it: we cherry-pick the science.
This piece throws that practice into sharp relief. All in the same article, a scientific affirmation of Montessori and — a challenge. Now, it’s easy to attack the conclusions of the second finding. “What kind of manipulatives? What kind of instruction? Ours is better! Our approach gives the child real understanding of the decimal system, not some pointless superficial ability to get the right answers.”
Well, maybe so. But we don’t get to accept the first finding and throw out the others just because we have a gut feeling that they’re wrong. These are empirical claims, and if we are going to hitch our wagon to empirical science (which we should and must, following Montessori-as-scientist), we need to get out there and prove them. That’s how science is done. One study by itself isn’t the end of the story—it’s the beginning. But to be part of that story, we need to be represented in the academy, and to be willing to put our claims and methods to the test.
Comments are open on the Post piece here (scroll down, log in). You can contact the authors of the study through their institutions: Kelly S. Mix and Jerri Stockton at Michigan State, Linda S. Prather and Richard Prather at Indiana State.